No longer niche: Oscar contenders embraced beyond the art house

04 February 2020 - 15:39 By Lisa Richwine
Joaquin Phoenix attends the premiere for the film 'Joker' in Los Angeles, California, on September 28 2019.
Joaquin Phoenix attends the premiere for the film 'Joker' in Los Angeles, California, on September 28 2019.
Image: REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

From billion-dollar blockbuster Joker to one of Quentin Tarantino's highest-grossing films, many of this year's Oscar best-picture nominees have drawn crowds to the box office.

It is the second straight year that Academy Awards voters have spotlighted widely seen movies, bucking a trend towards honouring independent films like Moonlight and The Hurt Locker that played to smaller audiences in art house theatres.

Six of nine contenders for the film industry's most coveted trophy, which will be awarded on Sunday, have grossed more than $100m worldwide, according to data from Box Office Mojo. Dark comedy Joker, from AT&T Inc's Warner Bros, leads the pack with $1.07bn (R15.9bn).

Next is the $389.3m (R5.8bn) for Tarantino's love letter to 1960s Tinseltown, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, released by Sony Corp's film studio. That ranks as the second-biggest box office take of Tarantino's career.

And both World War 1 epic 1917 and 1960s racing drama Ford v Ferrari have crossed $200m (R2.98bn) worldwide.

The sizeable ticket sales showed that moviegoers last year flocked to adult-orientated dramas and not just the action hero spectacles and sequels that dominate modern multiplexes, said Vulture film critic Alison Willmore.

“It's been a heartening year in that way,” Willmore said. “It felt counter to the narrative that the only movies people really turn out to see in larger crowds are franchises.”

Past honours for smaller films had stoked concern that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was out of touch with movie audiences and that its choices where hurting TV ratings for the Oscars telecast. When Moonlight was named best picture in 2017, it had sold just $22.3m (R332m) worth of tickets in the US and Canada.

Oscars organisers considered creating a best “popular” film category for the 2019 awards ceremony. They dropped the idea after a backlash that it would establish a two-tiered system of popular and what might have been seen as “unpopular” fare.

Popular films did, however, break into the best picture race last year. The field included Marvel's superhero film Black Panther and rock biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.

This year's nominees feature two movies from Netflix Inc, Marriage Story and The Irishman. The company does not reveal how much money its films earn in theatres but has said that Mafia epic The Irishman is a hit on streaming.

More than 26-million Netflix accounts streamed at least 70% of the film over the first seven days, Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos said in December. He projected that figure would reach 40-million over 28 days.

Netflix has not released figures for divorce drama Marriage Story. Both movies are still playing in theatres and streaming on Netflix.

Even the Korean-language film Parasite, a dark satire about inequality and best picture nominee this year, has lured audiences to movie houses. It has collected $163.3m (R2.4bn) at ticket windows around the world.

“You have a case of a foreign language film that has crossed over and become an incredible success and just a buzzed-about phenomenon,” Variety film critic Owen Gleiberman said.

— Reuters